Gears of War: Judgment is set fifteen years before the first GoW game and follows the story of the original partnership between two of the series' main characters: Augustus Cole and Damon Baird.
The latest title has been developed by People Can Fly studio; the same team behind manic arcade shooter Bulletstorm. Their hand in Judgement is clear to see with competitiveness and high scores taking precedent over a captivating storyline.
What Gears of War: Judgment does bring though is a revitalisation to a franchise that's been stuck in a rut. The first game held so much promise, but the series had pushed the third-person shooter as far as it could go within the rigid confines the series offered. Judgement prefers to hover much closer to the arcade gaming experience, and does so with great success.
Following the story of the series' Alpha squad members, Cole and Baird, the game begins with the four members of their pre-series team, Kilo squad, being taken into their trial for war crimes. The game then plays out what events led them to being in that situation, taking the story from the perspectives of each character, including two new faces – Garron Paduk and Sofia Hendrick.
All four are young, rebellious characters trying to find their place in life in the middle of a war. Paduk, who actually fought on the opposing side of the civil war, has now joined up with his old enemies to fight the greater threat of the Locust. Hendrick, on the other hand, is a youthful military cadet, trapped between wanting to impress her superiors and her alternate rebellious romanticism.
Baird and Cole are meant to be brash, patriotic, younger versions of the well-loved characters from the main series. Unfortunately, the characteristic sarcasm and witty banter that made them those characters is missing. Instead, the comic relief portion of the game falls flat and largely fails to provide a breather from the often dark dialogue.
The new team often finds it difficult to fuses together as a cohesive unit, however this adds to the appeal and realism of the Judgment storyline. The squad isn't a bullet-hard military operation or a pack of inexperienced youths. Rather they are impressionable and eager to earn military distinction without losing their devotion to the cause – their fellow men.
Each of the characters comments on their changing surroundings, providing sporadic narratives for their experiences during each mission and providing helpful back-story filler that helps brings the player closer to understanding the reason why the squad faces trial.
Epic Games and the People Can Fly team have worked hard to try and create rounded characters, but in a campaign that only provides around 5-10 hours of gameplay, they aren't quite as desirable as some might think.
With the People May Fly development team onboard, Gears of War: Judgment is much more akin to an arcade experience than a tactical shooter. Judgement offers two playable campaigns that are related in storyline, yet distinct from each other in terms of gameplay style.
The main campaign is the one of the title, following the four previously discussed characters fifteen years prior to the first Gears of War game. Instead of featuring a long unbroken narrative like the original series, Judgment is broken down into small, playable chunks each rated on a three-star scale, where the player earns more stars depending on their performance. Higher scores can be achieved by completing more kills, turning enemies into "gibs", performing headshots and completing achievements or ribbons during the mini-chapter.
Any "down but not out" injuries will negatively affect your score. The AI, although vastly improved in this title, still leaves you crawling about on the ground waiting for someone to help you up, meaning access to precious kills and creativity bonuses can be lost out on while you're waiting.
A huge score boost can be earned if you opt in to what the game calls the "Declassified" mission options. These are optional objectives that serve to make the combat much more varied. As with other games in the series, the constant combat can get a little repetitive. Accessible via a glowing Gears logo on a building early on in each segment, Declassified objectives employ certain mission restrictions such as reduced visibility, increased enemy presence, limited ammo or reliance on a single weapon.
Judgement offers some challenging combat once the Declassified option is engaged, and the move also adds extra replayability as you battle to achieve three stars on every level, however the repetition of 'start chapter, pick up Declassified objective, survive, rinse, repeat' does start to feel a little tedious after a while. Nevertheless it's also a well-executed attempt to bring new gameplay options to a tired series and introduces some enjoyable new weapons too.